It’s hard to remember a time when theaters played a good mix of Hollywood blockbusters and mid-budget movies. In a post-pandemic world, it’s go big or go home for studios producing feature films. Unfortunately for audiences, viewing a film on the big screen means picking between a remake of a classic, a sequel to a 20-year-old movie, or the latest Marvel release.
There’s no doubt that big budget movies, which are usually part of a bigger franchise, are dominating theaters today. Quality mid-budget movies that you might have loved as a kid simply aren’t being financed or green-lit. If they are, producers are avoiding theatrical releases and going straight to streaming services.
From Minions to Avatar, Franchises Dominate Theaters
The thought that Shawshank Redemption, School of Rock, Lady Bird—or any movie with a moderate budget and zero comic book characters—wouldn’t get made today is seriously depressing. Though many mid-budget movies did fairly well in theaters, more movies with at least a $50 million budget are being made. Studios are more interested in pumping out blockbusters that could net a profit of at least, it seems, several hundred million dollars.
For instance, James Cameron’s much-delayed sequels to Avatar need to make $1 billion to break even, according to the director himself. The first movie, which was released in 2009, had a budget of $237 million. This was considered a big figure for its time—but its $2.9 billion box office performance showed overwhelming success.
Cameron had always planned to expand Avatar into a franchise and thirteen years later, The Way of Water finally has a release date. It will be the second movie of the pentalogy, with a $1 billion budget split across the sequels. And to generate a profit—well, each of the sequels have to make at least a quarter of a billion dollars in theaters.
That’s a tall order for mid-budget movies but not for films with expensive budgets, especially since these budgets also include massive marketing and distribution campaigns.
You only need to look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies of the past two decades and their box office performances. Not counting The Incredible Hulk, the lowest-grossing MCU movie is Captain America: The First Avenger. It had a budget of $140 million—moderate by superhero movie standards but not enough to be considered a mid-budget movie. And it had a worldwide box office of $370.6 million. On the other end of the spectrum, Avengers: Endgame made $2.8 billion worldwide against a budget of $356 million.
There is a distinguishable trend of big budget movies in cinemas, and they’re eclipsing mid-budget movies. Even Minions: The Rise of Gru cost $80 million to produce and distribute—Toy Story’s $30 million budget suddenly seems small in comparison.
Streaming or Theatrical Release? A Film’s Budget Can Decide It All
If you’ve been enjoying the return of movie theaters like me, you might be feeding on a steady diet of blockbusters, too. The options for mid-budget movies that aren’t part of a bigger franchise are few and far between—at least in theaters.
That’s because for film studios, there just aren’t promising returns from producing mid-budget movies. Not when you still have to market them worldwide and compete with big-budget titles from major companies like Walt Disney Pictures or Warner Bros.
The pandemic also posed a major obstacle for the whole film industry and was the final nail in the coffin for mid-budget movies. With theaters still recovering from extended shutdowns, it makes sense to only screen movies with the highest projected ticket sales. Usually, these are the ones that can also spend big bucks on marketing and distribution.
Mid-budget movies that actually get made either get a limited theatrical release or go straight to a streaming platform. Think of Hulu original movies like Fresh and Not Okay. Or critically acclaimed films like The Power of Dog, which had a limited release before it started streaming on Netflix. Even Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is going straight to Netflix, even though the first movie grossed $312.9 million in theaters against a budget of $40 million.
The trend of mid-budget movies going straight to streaming platforms is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, it can be more convenient for people who can’t carve the time to go out to theaters and prefer relaxing with a movie at home. On the other hand, streaming services are not exactly cheap. When you have to subscribe to four of them, the costs add up.
Is Mid-Budget Cinema Dying?
Blockbusters eclipsing mid-budget movies doesn’t mean the latter doesn’t get made at all either. It just means viewers can’t expect to watch them on a big screen. For me, the first problem is quality. Netllix has released a lot of mediocre and awful movies on their platform. After all, it doesn’t cost a ton of money to produce a bad film. The Woman in the Window, Falling for Christmas, The Kissing Booth—I could go on and on about terrible Netflix originals that should never have been made.
And that brings up the question of quantity. With a high number of bad mid-budget movies getting released, the good ones easily get lost in the shuffle. One can easily miss movies like The Lost Daughter, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 because these mid-budget movies weren’t marketed heavily on streaming platforms. To quote Matt Damon, “Courtroom dramas, all that stuff, they can’t get made… You want the most accessible thing you can make, in terms of language and culture. And what is that? A superhero movie.” I can’t imagine a world in which the Good Will Hunting lead is struggling to do the mid-budget films, which he described as his ‘bread and butter’, because no studio is willing to finance it.
If there’s any hope on the horizon for mid-budget cinema, it’s production studios like A24, the studio behind The Witch. The studio has already given us theatrical experiences of modern masterpieces like Moonlight, The Lighthouse, Everything Everywhere All At Once. None of them broke the $50 million budget mark. The studio is continuing to churn out movies that are actually good without having to be expensive by the film industry’s standards.
Mid-budget movies aren’t yet extinct but they are on the decline in movie houses. Thankfully, there are still studios willing to take a chance on scripts that cater to fans that don’t necessarily have a taste for adaptations of beloved comics or old movies that don’t really need to be remade. I recently watched The Menu, Barbarian, and Bones and All in theaters and couldn’t stop smiling at the quality of these mid-budget movies. If we continue to support mid-budget movies that are fortunate enough to get movie screenings, maybe balance will be restored in theaters.